To care or not care about the recent spate of Star Wars-related announcements? Former fans may have little choice, even if the prospects look dim.
These are vexing times if you’ve grown up with the Star Wars films – the first trilogy, which, when released in the late 1970s through the early 1980s, were simply the most immersive spectacles we’d seen. Those three films colonised our imaginations to such an extent that we perk up, Pavlovianly, every time the brand is mentioned, as in the recent announcement that George Lucas had sold his production company to the Disney corporation, which will conceive and release a brand new trilogy. This is vexing news because we former fans don’t want any more Star Wars movies to corrode our precious memories of the earliest films, and yet, despite this near-ontological dread, we can’t help but wonder what the new ones will be like, what stories they will tell. And we thought, after Revenge of the Sith, that we were through with all this handwringing. Can the powers of that galaxy far, far away tell us if there’s an end in sight? We know how Anakin Skywalker was born. We know how he was trained, how he turned. And we know how Darth Vader died. What else is there?
We don’t feel this agony with other long-running series – say, the James Bond franchise. We are able to see these films as just films, partly because each episode is a discrete unit. All installments belong to the same “universe,” if you want to call it that, but other than characters and situations being reproduced in each film, there’s very little continuity in terms of organic story development. We’re in no danger of a cliffhanger Bond episode that ends with the startling revelation that M is 007’s father, or that Miss Moneypenny, secretly being eyed by Felix Leiter, is really 007’s twin. The Bond films are also easier to distance ourselves from because, to a large extent, they don’t take themselves too seriously (so we don’t take them very seriously either). After George Lazenby’s Bond rescues his future wife, first from suicide and then from thugs on a beach, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she drives off without so much as a thank-you. Lazenby remarks, “This never happened to the other fellow,” and we smile because we know he’s referring to Sean Connery, whom Lazenby replaced. Bond winked at us and we winked right back.
The Indiana Jones series, too, is lighthearted, and while we may groan at the image of an ancient Harrison Ford conquering osteoarthritis and cracking that whip again, we don’t especially care when we read news about plans for a new installment. The comic-book franchises – the adventures of Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, X-Men – are a little more serious, as there’s all that saving the world stuff to be done, but these are fairly self-contained films as well. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, there’s very little incremental myth-building – and that’s how you know if a series is endlessly recyclable or needs to be conceived with an end in sight. Like the Star Wars films, The Dark Knight Rises ends with the “death” of a central character, and that’s the end of the story. Good has triumphed over evil. The myth has reached its logical end. Some other filmmaker will doubtless resurrect Batman – no studio is going to let go of a character that’s brought in billions – but it will have to be with a new story, with new villains from the comic books.
The problem with the Star Wars films is that it’s not about a solitary hero – Jedi-Man – who is called upon at different times to fight different villains. Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi knight and vanquishes Darth Vader. Nothing can top this because the patricidal angle lends this drama the echoes of a Greek tragedy, and because Darth Vader was the ne plus ultra of villainy. At first, he’s simply a terrifying figure, but over the course of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, he’s softened by his love for his son, and the subsequent trilogy – however problematic they were – made us empathise with him even more, and by the end, we were left with the only series in Hollywood franchise history that was about the villain, and where the hero was something of a whiny side-act. The Star Wars series told the archetypal good-winning-over-evil story by focusing on the evildoer. If you’re too young to remember the first few films, just imagine a Harry Potter series where Voldemort is the central character. That’s right.
But of course, none of this matters if you’re a studio head with an eye on the bottom line. Vader’s dead? No problem. According to a report in The Telegraph, “The trilogy will continue the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia beyond Return of the Jedi, the third film released and the sixth in the saga.” It’s not inconceivable that something good may come of this, thanks to a talented screenwriter and director – and George Lucas has set the bar so low with his prequels that all one has to do is steer clear of Gungans and geopolitical negotiations and we’d have a halfway watchable movie. But something inside keeps wishing that they’d move on. After all, even in the Ramayana, the end of Ravana feels like the end of the story. The rest of the epic, beginning with the twin sons, feels like so much padding, as if the campfire listeners of yore couldn’t have enough and the raconteur had to keep racking his brains for more material – and nothing he dreamt up could better a megalomaniacal villain with nine additional heads.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.